Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Chronicles of an ongoing battle between solipsism and empiricism

On one hand there is a real physical world out there with objects that we can see, hear, touch, perceive. Living entities are the most intriguing of them all- we can talk to them, we can listen to them, we can play with them, we can fight with them, we can build relationships with them.

On the other hand there is the mental world- the world of thoughts, emotions, ideas and dreams. Mathematics, philosophy, music, painting etc. are major manifestations of this mental world. They often give us a glimpse of the existence of an abstract world beyond the physical world we live in – the abstract world nearing to have a physical existence of its own, defying the word “abstract”.

We live in the physical world, with mountains, rivers, trees, animals, houses, roads, cars, schools, colleges, hospitals etc. but often we encounter bridges to the abstract world like the 9 3/4-th platform in Harry Potter’s stories. These bridges range from critically acclaimed works of art like Claude Monet’s paintings, John Keats’s poetry, Amir Khusrao’s and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and Plato’s dialogues to myriads of events we experience in pop culture- Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drives on TV, Ultimate Warrior’s crazy promos before Wrestlemania, Rick and Morty’s trippy episodes to name a few. In this blog I shall try to explore several of these bridges between the physical and the mental worlds in a methodical fashion . At the core of all my posts recurs a constant struggle between two conflicting ideas- the idea of realism/ empiricism/ materialism, i.e., this world exists as it is independent of us and we are perceiving it through our sensory organs and modifying it through our motor organs, and the idea of idealism/solipsism, i.e. there is nothing real in this world outside our mind, all our friends, family, jobs don’t really exist, they are just impressions in our mind and this world is nothing but a simulation. My posts however don’t resolve the age old debate among philosophers regarding these two contradictory epistemological positions. I don’t think anybody ever will be able to do so. My posts simply put this debate in the right context, and throw more light on it.

One more thing, I have used the existing terminology in academic “philosophy” very freely here and in my other posts partly due to my my academic background in science as opposed to philosophy and partly due to my little lack of reverence for existing academic “philosophy” to explore philosophical themes. Academic “philosophy” explores philosophical themes only through words, crafted in a meticulous fashion. But in my humble opinion, the same themes can be captured only if the words are backed by actions in day to day life giving the appropriate context to those words, e.g. how we talk to our colleagues, how we interact with our friends, how invested we are in our romances, are as important as scholarly articles in understanding philosophy.  As Kabir says,

“Labzo se hum khel rahe hai, maana haat na aaye,

Paani paani rat te rat te pyaasa hi raha jaaye

Shola shola rat te rat te lab par aanch na aaye

Ek chingari lab par rakh lo, lab turant jal jaaye”

(We are playing with words, but we don’t understand the meaning. We keep chanting “water” but we stay thirsty. We keep chanting “fire” but we don’t feel anything on our lips, but the moment we put a flame on our lips,  our lips burn).

Growing up in a society full of friends, family, classes, jobs, degrees and honors it is very hard to perceive the possibility of the existence of a world beyond the physical. But life experiences can be such (getting immersed in music or painting, a feeling of extreme pain or cornucopia of joy in love, an emptiness through isolation from society in a new country or job) that the existence of the abstract world not only becomes conceivable but can even take over the existence of the physical world in one’s consciousness. There are thoughts going on in our head and we translate only a few of the thoughts into action. In mathematical language, it is a many to one mapping from the mental world to the physical world. In extraordinary circumstances like solitude, it is often hard to distinguish the world of thoughts from the world of action because there are too many thoughts and too few actions. The lack of onlookers to verify the reality perceived through our senses adds to it. Our consciousness is largely collective after all, a lot of the common sense we use for our day to day actions is imbibed by us from society through collective wisdom. With lack of people, the collective wisdom may start fading.

And with it, often comes lurking forward the fear of death, an event probably absolute in an otherwise conflicting world of ideas and arguments and events where probably every argument can be countered by another argument. Though I shall attempt to make my posts in this blog be as drenched in bright sunshine as possible, somewhat like Ruskin Bond’s writing, I cannot guarantee that death won’t expose its dark face here and there in the posts.

My posts will be broadly in the following categories:

i. Short stories

ii. Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/Rambling

iii. Golden Era of Bollywood (50s and 60s)

iv. Professional wrestling

v. Calcutta Corner

vi. Science

 

I shall add more categories with time, e.g. Impressionist art, Sufi poetry, sci-fi TV shows etc. with time.

Please check out the posts, thanks for visiting the site.

 

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Calcutta Corner

Recurring imagery in Anjan Dutta’s music

After writing a few really cerebral posts which are so typical of my blog (the last one was particularly dark), I felt like writing something light and fun. So I chose something which is much closer to my heart than my mind- the music of good old Anjan Dutta, somebody who Bengalis both love and hate. His songs like “Mary Ann”, “Bela Bose” and “Mr Hall”  became a mainstay of urban college music scene in Bengal in the early 90-s. In the new millennium, just when people thought his popularity had faded and the themes of his songs- guitar, Darjeeling, cigarette and teenage love- had grown stale, he rekindled the enthusiasm about his music in people by making movies around his songs. Movies like “Madly Bengali”, “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na”  and “Aami Ashbo Phirey” that released in the 2010s were essentially celebrations of the music he made as a singer- songwriter a couple of decades back.

As I said, along with multitudes of fans, he has plenty of detractors particularly among members of the older generation, who probably cannot relate to his anglophilia, his free flowing hipster lifestyle and his obsession with cigarettes, alcohol and western country and folk music. The fact that his songs are not musically rich and are quite simply glorified poems is another popular allegation against him.  I defended him on numerous occasions in debates with elders, as well as some friends, and went to the length of saying that he is a better songwriter than Rabindranath Tagore. After exploring Tagore’s music much more in the recent years, I don’t think I can make that claim any more but I still see where my argument came from. Tagore’s lyrics is mostly abstract, he seeks some form of divinity in everything that he sees around him – clouds, rivers, flowers, meadows- and finds a sense of tranquility in them. On the other hand, Anjan Dutta’s lyrics is highly grounded in “reality”- he talks about the daily commute in the crowded buses of Calcutta, the lonely saxophone player in a five star hotel, two tiny rooms under the staircase with the plaster fading off the walls- the list goes on. Even when his imagery shifts from the crowded urban landscape to the serenity of the hills, he is still very “real” – the railing overlooking the steep slope, the yellow fingers of the piano teacher moving over the keys of the piano, etc. So in a way the contrast between Anjan Dutta’s lyrics and Tagore’s lyrics perfectly encapsulates the central theme of my blog- the real versus the abstract.

Okay, I again deviated from my promise of not making this post cerebral like my other posts. So let’s get back on track- I am simply gonna describe some of the recurrent imageries in Anjan Dutta’s music over the years and have a lot of fun in the process. I am not describing the most talked about ones here- everyone is well aware of his obsession with Park Street, Darjeeling, Anglo Indians, cigarette, guitar and Bob Dylan.  This post is about the less discussed ones, but strangely these images have repeated in a lot of his songs, starting from the early 90s to the late 2010s.

Buttonless Shirt- Why exactly is he so obsessed with a buttonless shirt? Probably to him it’s symbolic of a free flowing lifestyle, but since he has talked about it in multiple songs, for example. “Ache beporoya botam bihin shirt” from the song “Tobu Jodi Tumi” in the movie “Dutta vs Dutta” or  “Botam bihin shirt ta amar chhoto keno hoy” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”, one has to wonder what is this fetish with buttonless shirts really about. In fact what exactly is a buttonless shirt? Does a simple round neck T-shirt count as buttonless? For sure it doesn’t have a button. Or does he simply want to the convey the idea of wearing a shirt without buttoning it up? In fact he posed himself like that too often in the movie “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona”, so probably that’s what it is.

Poor kids living on the streets of Calcutta, bathing under the roadside municipal taps – “Tobu-o neche uthey abar rashtar kol, Nachte nachte chaan kore jaay, rashtar cheler dool” from the song “Sokal” in his recent movie “Ami Ashbo Phirey” invokes quite similar images in my head as “Tumi dekhechho ki Hatujole 1 Loyd Street-tumi dekhechho ki borshay….sei langta chheletar hashi” from the song “Tumi Dekhechho ki”, composed in the 90s. All jokes apart, this imagery is really touching just like most of his other imagery and speaks volumes about his lyrical genius.

Japan- Anjan Dutta has some weird obsession about Japan. Sure, he considers his music to be international and it indeed is, and he often tries to transcend all political and cultural barriers with his lyrics and music. So he frequently talks about other countries in his songs, but he talks about Japan a bit too often- and the references to Japan are pretty arbitrary and almost have no context whatsoever. For example, he repeats the phrase “Ke Hindu Ke Japani” in the songs – “Que Sara Ra Ra” from the movie “Ganesh Talkies” and “Ami Ashbo Phirey” from the movie with the same name.Then again a couple of decades ago in the song “Aamar Janala” he wrote- “Keu janala khule Alabamay bangla gaan i gay, Keu porchhe Koran boshe tar Japani janalay”. Interestingly, he followed up the imagery of singing Bengali songs in Alabama and reading the Quran in Japan with that of playing guitar in Mexico. Probably back then he didn’t have much access to the internet just like the rest of us and wasn’t aware of the fact that the image of someone playing guitar in Mexico did not really break any cultural stereotype and promote a sense of internationalism unlike the previous two images- in fact playing the guitar was probably a very common thing in Mexico and still is.

 

Getting up early in the morning and watching the sunrise- Along with internationalism, the pain of growing up and missing one’s childhood is a dominant theme of Anjan Dutta’s lyrics. And he depicts it really well through his imagery, thereby making his songs one of the closest things to my heart. And just like he refers to Japan often to promote internationalism, he talks about not getting up early in the morning any more to watch the sun rise whenever he misses his childhood- for example, the lines “Bhorbela ar lukie dekha hoy na, Surjodoy dei je faki”  from the song “Koto ki korar chhilo re” in “Madly Bengali”  or the lines “Bhor bela te bhor bela amar Dekha hoye othey na je aar
Ke jaane ki karone” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”.

 

There are many other such recurring images in the lyrics of his songs, which together build up the world of Anjan Dutta- a world which I have always relied upon to provide me with support in moments of pain and with excitement in moments of joy. Most importantly in moments when I have got lost in some abstract world and felt detached from this world we live in, only to feel scared subsequently, his music provided me with the perfect “grounding”- something I badly needed. It reminded me of and made me embrace again my roots, my passions and my identity which I had tried to transcend with all the other worldly spiritual stuff, a journey which ended up being scary in the end.

 

Lastly, yes, the themes and images of his songs and also his movies are repetitive, and a lot of people I know have voiced their dislike for him because of that, but this is what I have always said in his defence- he is not a mainstream playback singer who sings songs written by other people like a machine- some being about romance, some about patriotism, some about friendship and so on. Instead, he writes his own lyrics and he writes them from within. As a result, since he is just one individual and has had a limited set of experiences, his songs and movies are bound to be repetitive. And that is probably the case with any original artist of modern times in any domain of art unless the name of the artist is Satyajit Ray.

 

 

 

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Why not trip over death or try kill oneself

Over last Fall and Spring, I had scribbled down on my notebook several reasons why one should not obsess over the idea of death, or worse, actually try out some self destructive physical act as a result of the obsession. I wrote them down as and when these reasons occurred to me. An important thing I wanted to clarify here is that these reasons are mainly applicable to people who contemplate suicide mainly out of an obsession with the idea of death and what happens to someone after death, and not to people who contemplate suicide to terminate the mental pain or escape from the difficult situation they are in. The latter is considered to be the main reason for suicide- a person is in immense emotional pain all the time and cannot take it any more, so they kill themselves. But as experience has taught me, one can have self destructive thoughts simply out of isolation or too much pondering over philosophical issues. They can get so immersed in their own mental/ abstract world that they keep questioning whether the physical world they live in and share with others is real or whether it is simply an illusion. After that at some point, they start toying with the idea of death too much because to them death, being quite absolute in nature, opens up the possibility of experiencing some kind of absolute reality.

Here I have listed some arguments I have come up with over time which one can use to avoid having such weird “trip”-s about death and thereby getting into a self destructive spiral.

  1. Death is inevitable. It will happen to everyone. Obsession about something makes sense if the probability of that thing happening is pretty low, e.g. publishing a research paper in a high Impact Factor journal, writing a best seller novel, winning the Nobel Prize, leading Indian cricket team to a victory at the World Cup, etc. Based on past record death is an absolute certainty, so why obsess over something that will happen anyway?
  2. All these philosophies, poetry, music etc. hint at the existence of a beautiful ideal world beyond this physical world, but there is really no guarantee that such a world exists. Also if it exists, with death it will appear anyway and death will happen eventually. So why rush it? Death is irreversible, so don’t toy with it. Let it happen in its due course. 
  3. This world with mountains, rivers, cities, friends and family is pretty intricate, intriguing and awesome. Even if the whole thing is a simulation, as it often appears with isolation and too much “deep thinking”, let it be a simulation. We have always been in this simulation but probably never noticed it before because it is a wonderfully intricately designed one anyway. For example, when we were having fun in high school or college, when did we ever think that the world around us could be a self consistent simulation?  It’s only recently as we have experienced the life more and more and patterns have started to repeat that we have started bringing up these questions. It doesn’t really matter if the world around is a simulation or real because as long as everything is consistent, which has always been the case minus some fringe elements, our experience of the world remains the same either way. Also, eve if it’s all a simulation, what is the reason to want to end the simulation abruptly through death? That thought didn’t occur so far even though we had always been inside the simulation.
  4. Love holds the world together. This world may be a simulation but our near and dear ones really love us and they will be devastated if something happens to us. So never never contemplate death. Explore all your passions and stay obsessed with them. Stay distracted!
  5. The fundamental purpose of existence is to eat and reproduce. That’s how evolution works . The spiritual framework rejects this idea and tries to find a higher purpose for existence. So in that sense a spiritual journey is anti-evolutionary. Probably that’s why it’s extremely demanding to go on the spiritual path. So better not to take it too seriously and get guided by evolution and chill out!
  6. Spending too much time insolation and questioning what is the purpose of life doesn’t make much sense because we didn’t start from such an ideal situation in the first place. We spent first twenty years of our lives with family and friends and never asked ourselves what was the purpose of life. But then when we started living by ourselves and experienced more solitude, this question started arising in our minds. Since we got entangled in a non ideal world to begin with why ask idealist questions now!! Just continue with the non idealities, spend life the way you spent your initial years. Stay connected to the “real world” one way or the other.
  7. Isolation and loneliness lets the subjective aspect of our consciousness, as described by philosopher David Chalmers while formulating the “hard problem of consciousness”, grow and hence outsude world feels like simulation because of too much mental activity inside and too little physical activity outside. Don’t spend too much time alone!
  8. Don’t even try to act like you are doing things close to what can hurt you. Brain is a pattern forming machine. It has somehow related those things that gave you “death trips” with death and your OCD further makes you want do these things or act like doing them. Don’t respond to it at all.
  9. There is no absolute reality at least the living cannot experience it. A subjective feeling of consciousness always pervades our perception of reality, which is a calibration  of current signal to some previous signal already existing in the brain as memory. May be at the moment of our death we will perceive absolute reality, but we may not as well. Anyway death is an eventuality, so at that moment of dying the idea can  be tested anyway. No need to rush it.
    Also probably if someone loses all memory whatsoever or feels a sense of detachment from all memory, the latter can happen out of isolation and prolonged lack of interest in worldly things, they can perceive something very close to absolute reality but the experience is much more scary than fun. There is perhaps no need to revisit it again. Instead of trying to detach oneself from memories and try to live “in the moment” without relating the present with your past and future, it is a much better idea according to me to make new memories and experience the world around in the light of those memories. Your memories are what you are, they are your identity. This idea that memory is painful and one should get rid of their ego by transcending these memories and experience life only by living in the present is often preached in the spirituality domain of human knowledge. However from personal experience this idea, though can be an immense source of bliss in the initial days, eventually alienates one from their surroundings, makes them very lonely inside and leads to existential crisis. In the name of losing your ego you may lose your identity, don’t do that!
  10. If we study human evolution in this planet, we will observe that forming groups has made man survive and eventually outclass all other animals. Forming group has been our biggest strength. Thus evolution has made man a social animal. We need each others’ support to live. There may be outliers to this but majority want to live in society with company and not feel alone. So many things are missing when alone like love and humor, which are essential to our existence. So we must live together, not alone. Even human consciousness is collective end of the day. The language in which we think, the manner in which we talk, our hand gestures are all products of our upbringing in the society. Living alone suddenly makes you question all those things about yourself which you had taken for granted so long because the collective nature of your consciousness starts disappearing slowly. Is it an experience really worth having?
  11. Assuming the realist/ materialist view point of life is correct, this world exists the way it is whether we live or die. But again this world is us in the end. Our job is to live this world and people there in and learn as much and make memories and then impact the world so that we live in this world through our memories after we die. death is gonna happen anyway . Question is what do we do to impact this world before we die.
  12.  As long as train of thoughts leads you from one idea to another without raising any question mark / existential crisis / suicidal thought you are fine. Just keep loving this world. Another thing that one needs to be careful about is obsessive thought in general. Even if it’s not about death, even if it’s about something else, always thinking about it means you are indulging in it too much. Indulging in something is fine, if you don’t indulge in the world then you start feeling detached from everything and all the death trip starts as explained previously, but if you indulge in something too much that can lead to a lot of pain later and then again to avoid the pain you will get into the detachment path and the cycle will repeat. Best way to proceed is probably to balance it all out, indulge but don’t indulge too much, be practical and yet be spiritual, be spiritual and yet be practical!
  13. According to the concept of arrow of time, time moves only in the forward direction. However an interesting thing I realised in that context is that though in the physical world things can get created or destroyed, in the mental world things only get created. Any thought that has occurred to a man lives on through the memories of the man in the others’ minds, the books he / she writes or the work he/ she does. Sometimes memories go latent but they are always there. As Rabindranath Tagore wrote in the poem “Hothat Dekha” (A sudden meeting) – Raater sob tara thake diner aalor gobhire (All stars of the night stay hidden in the depth of the sunlight during the day). Right circumstances bring back the latent memories. Hence always stay in touch with the world and through that stay in touch with your memories. Love the world and its people, and contribute more to this world through your work. This way you add more to the world. Things only accumulate in mental world, nothing gets destroyed. Keep adding stuff.

Most importantly try to adopt a middle ground whenever there are  contradictory ideas, don’t take any idea to the extreme and do chill out!

Fantasy

Alchemy, equivalent exchange and karma, Professor Shanku and Full Metal Alchemist

Though I have taken a lot of interest in metaphysical stuff over the years and dedicated large chunks of this blog to discussions on that, I never took much interest in alchemy perhaps because of my natural lack of inclination towards chemistry. I read Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shanku story “Shankur Suborno Sujog” (Shonku’s Golden Opportunity) very recently but didn’t really look up on alchemy after that. Well, Satyajit Ray based his science fiction stories on a lot of stuff- from time travel to unicorns, from witchcraft to artificial intelligence, so why bother? Also to be honest as much as I respect Satyajit Ray for all the amazing movies he made and the fictional sleuth he created- Feluda, who was a large part of my childhood, I never was a big fan of his Professor Shanku stories. As a kid, I didn’t understand or appreciate them much, and as an adult I felt them to be too childish. Satyajit Ray was an artistic genius and probably had a lot of curiosity about science too, but in my opinion that is not enough to write good science fiction. One actually needs to know a little bit of science so that the story has enough details to appear realistic even though it is fantasy. Satyajit Ray probably lacked the knowledge of science to fill up his stories with sound details. As a result most of the Shanku stories, despite providing a good read, are hardly memorable- Shanku owns a gun which makes any object in front of it vanish when fired, he makes a machine which can translate the language of ants, he makes some object which can float in air to defy gravity. Sure this is science fiction and not science and so I am ready to suspend my disbelief, but provide me with the details of how these things happen for science’s sake!

Okay enough of Satyajit Ray bashing, now back to alchemy! In the story “Shanku’s Suborno Sujog”, Professor Shanku and his two other friends, both scientists like him, try to reproduce the experiment to transform other objects to gold that has been reported in a Spanish diary from medieval Europe, when the study of alchemy had its heyday. They keep putting different objects in a well of some liquid that they prepare as a part of the experiment but to their dismay nothing turns into gold until the villain of the story accidentally jumps into it and his entire body is turned into gold. The scientists realize that the transformation to gold demands life and hence it works only for living objects.

I read this story and pretty much forgot about it until recently when I started watching the massively popular anime- “Full Metal Alchemist”- the 2003 version. I finished all its episodes in the last one month, and also watched the sequel movie- “Conqueror of Shamballa”. The series made me look up on alchemy and understand the basics of the different concepts in alchemy that have been highlighted in the show- transmutation, transmutation circle, law of equivalent exchange, gate of truth, philosopher’s stone etc. Most of the information available on the internet about these concepts is based on the TV series and the manga it is based on, so I am not very sure how many of these concepts are borrowed from actual annals on alchemy written over the ages, and how many have been concocted for the sake of the manga. Nevertheless, I will discuss some of the concepts over here and relate them with other things that have interested me in the past.

The law of equivalent exchange is the fundamental law of alchemy- for everything gained in the world, something of equal value must be lost, though the series never explicitly lays out what parameters determine equal value. Some examples are shown instead- the protagonists, Ed and Al, try to bring their dead mother back to life but Ed loses his arm and leg and Al loses his entire body, the teacher Izumi loses organs inside her belly in the attempt to regain her lost child, umpteen human lives need to be sacrificed to create the philosopher’s stone and so on. The idea is indeed similar to that in Professor Shanku’s story – only living objects can be transmuted to gold, i.e., creation of gold comes at the cost of sacrifice of a life.

In the series, Ed and Al’s understanding of the law of equivalent exchange evolves over time. When they are young and innocent, they take the law as absolute truth. As they grow older and have several life changing experiences in their pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, and particularly after an altercation with the antagonist, Dante, at  the climax of the story, their absolute belief in the law seems to erode. Dante passionately argues that the law of equivalent exchange is a theory that has been concocted to delude innocent minds. The world is cruel, random and unfair. Good things happen to some people and bad things to the others for no reason whatsoever. By the end of the series, Al concedes that he no longer considers equivalent exchange an absolute law. He rather interprets it as a promise- a ray of hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that someday he will reunite with his brother Ed.

I find this theory of equivalent exchange very similar to the theory of karma in ancient philosophy. According to the theory of karma, everything in this world happens for a reason. Events that are separated by vast expanses of space and long passages of time are actually connected by strings, invisible to us. Though this idea seemed implausible to me initially, experiences in life have taught me otherwise. As I have mentioned in some of my other posts, there is always a subjective aspect to consciousness which will keep our understanding of the world around us grey forever. Once someone is isolated enough or is deeply in pain due to a heartbreak or is obsessed with metaphysical ideas over a long period of time, their mind works in ways like it does never before. The mind starts making long range connections and relating events with each other, which it always considered uncorrelated before. It is not impossible that an individual, possessed with such a mental state, will be afraid crossing the road because a car can run him over for the way he mistreated his girlfriend six months back.

I do not think we can ever be sure whether our world is so causal, correlated and deterministic as the karma theory considers it to be. This world might as well be completely random and unfair, or it can be somewhere in between – some things happen for a reason and some other things just happen randomly. However what I do believe is that every individual should have the right to choose their own view of the world. And just like Al chooses to believe in equivalent exchange since it instills hope in him, I also choose to believe in karma but not take it as an absolute because that way I take everything I do and everything that happens to me way too seriously. I find it difficult to do simple things in everyday life, which always involve a little risk, if my mind is haunted with the thought that they may have severe consequences as a result of something I did wrong ages ago.

Another interesting concept in the series which I find worth discussing is the concept of the Gate of Truth. In the 2003 TV series “Full Metal Alchemist”, the Gate is presented as a portal between two worlds. One of the worlds is the world we live in, where modern science is dominated by physics and its derivatives and alchemy has no power, and the other world is that of Ed and Al’s- the state of Amestris, where alchemy is considered the most superior science. Majority of the episodes in the series is set in the latter world, with the former appearing in the last few episodes of the series and the sequel movie.

Essentially in our world, practice of alchemy was not that uncommon even a few centuries ago. Attempts were made in different parts of the world, particularly in Europe at the later stage, to transmute different substances to gold, develop panaceas that can cure all diseases and create the philosopher’s stone. However in the post Renaissance era, with the widespread success of physics, attempts were made to rigorously quantify and record the various practices in alchemy, and to separate the procedures performed on various substances as a part of alchemy from the spiritual practices connected to it like the purification of soul and grant of eternal life. Thus refined versions of age old practices in alchemy, with the metaphysical connotations stripped off them, became what we call “chemistry” today, while alchemy got the status of an outdated, occult branch of knowledge. The series Full Metal Alchemist and the manga behind it essentially imagine a world which has a very similar history as ours, just that alchemy does not fall from grace there and physics and chemistry do not take its place. The protagonists Ed and Al and most of the other characters belong to that world. In the series, that world of alchemy is separated from our world by the Gate of Truth- an idea very similar to the central theme of my blog- bridge between the physical world and the abstract world.

A few things about the characters and storyline in the series need to be mentioned before I end the post. The expressiveness on Ed’s face at every close up shot is simply mesmerising. The artists deserve a huge credit for that. That, alongside the innocent conviction in Al’s voice every time he states his intentions or opinions, will stay with me for a long time. I also found the use of comic elements at different points in the show, even in the serious situations, extremely innovative and refreshing. Ed going berserk every time he is called short and Al holding him back screaming “brother” innocently never gets old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philosophy · Short stories

Divine love and neural engineering

It was about 8 PM in the evening. Done with his work in the laboratory for the day, Ary was packing up his stuff and getting ready to leave. He had completed four years of his PhD and had already finished majority of his thesis work. Thus he didn’t really have a lot of work to do in the laboratory of late.

The phone inside the pocket of his jeans suddenly started vibrating. He usually kept his phone on silent mode with no vibration on to avoid being disturbed in the middle of some engagement. As a result he missed all his incoming calls, much to the agony of his friends and colleagues. In fact he had almost forgotten the experience of picking up an incoming call. Usually he would look at his mobile phone once in an hour or so, check the call log and call back the people who had tried to contact him in the last one or two hours if they were important enough to him. But that day by mistake he had put his phone on vibration mode.

He pulled the phone out of the his jeans’ pocket. The call was coming from some unknown, but local number. Reluctantly he picked up the call. It was an old lady’s voice on the other end. The accent was American, most probably Californian. Interestingly his fellow American friends identified that as having no accent.

“Am I speaking to Aranyak Sen?”, the lady asked.

“Yes”, Ary replied.

There was a second’s pause. Then she said, “Your friend Poulomi Chatterji met with an accident. She is bleeding profusely. May have broken some bones too. She is getting transferred to a trauma center in Castro Valley. She has listed you as her emergency contact person and gave us your phone number.”

Ary didn’t know how to respond. It was a weird feeling. There was shock and grief, but surpassing all that he experienced a strange feeling which several times he attempted to recall later and describe in words not only to communicate it to someone else but also for his own understanding. But he always failed to do so. It felt like memories of day to day events that happened about him and their associated emotions were only residing on the surface of his brain. This news had pierced through all that and hit the core of his brain, as if he was waiting for this moment for years. So far all that happened to him was trivial. This was the moment when his actual life began.

“How did the accident happen?”, Ary asked.

“She fell off a cliff near Muir Woods. She was hiking by herself. Some other hikers found her lying senseless and called 911. The paramedics gave her first aid and took her to a local hospital to realize that she was suffering from internal bleeding and that it was a medical emergency. So she was rushed to the biggest trauma center around, in Castro Valley.”

“Okay, please tell me the address of the trauma center, and where in that hospital I can find her. I am driving there right away.”

After ending the phone call, Ary signed in to the rental car application on his phone, rented a car for the night which was parked very close to their office building and left his laboratory in the direction of the parking lot. Why on earth would Polo go for a hike to Muir woods on a working day? And yes sure, it was summer and the sun didn’t set until almost 8 PM but still why would she be out in the hills that late? Ary had noticed that Polo was getting more weird and crazy every passing day, but this was probably too much.

When he reached the parking lot, he was quickly able to locate the car. It was a white Hyundai Santro. It was always parked at this lot for people to rent it on an hourly basis, and so many times Ary too had rented it before to practice driving on freeways. Most of the times he was accompanied by Polo. She grew up in Singapore where public transport was very convenient. It was also very expensive to own a car. Hence her parents never owned a car. Yet she learned driving in Singapore through a driving school. When she moved to the bay area a couple of years back for her PhD she got her California driving license immediately and started driving around the bay area frequently. On the other hand, Ary had been in the bay area for four years now but only got his license a year back. Despite passing the driving test to get his license, he still wasn’t very confident about driving on freeways at 80 miles per hour. So he often rented that specific Hyundai Santro car after a day’s work, asked the more experienced Polo to join him and went straight on the freeway just to get used to that speed of traffic. Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Polo wasn’t really the conventional instructor. She didn’t give her continuous instructions on how to drive. In fact she rarely said anything. Often she would even have her eyers closed. But Ary knew that this entire time, Polo was making sure they were safe.

On the first such driving session with Polo, Ary took the car out of the parking lot and drove it along University Avenue, which ran westward from UC Berkeley campus, tearing through the heart of the city, all the way to the bridge that connected it with Interstate 880 freeway that ran between south bay and east bay. As they approached that bridge, Ary felt a little nervous and unsure. He asked Polo, “Hey, what happens at this bridge? I can’t recall. Does it straight join 880?”. But her eyes were closed and she didn’t respond. Ary asked the same question again. Then she slowly responded, “no, the road goes upward and upward and then it joins the sky”.

All these memories were flooding Ary’s mind as he was driving at 80 miles per hour on Freeway 880 to reach the trauma center at Castro Valley. It was past the evening rush hours, so the lanes were relatively empty. He kept wondering about the state he was going to find Polo in at the hospital. Would she be in a lot of pain? Would she be able to identify him? Ary had no clue.

Calcutta Corner · Poetry

Banalata Sen: Adaptation of selected poetry of one the most iconic Bengali poets- Jibanananda Das

Jibanananda Das is widely considered to be the greatest Bengali poet of the post Rabindranath Tagore era. Poetry books like “Rupasi Bangla”, “Dhushar Pandulipi” and “Banalata Sen”, which are essentially sincerest meditations on nature, feminine beauty, history, geography, life and death, have made him a common name in the Bengali household.

Here I have tried to adapt five of my favorite poems from his book “Banalata Sen” in English. I did not translate these poems word by word from Bengali to English since I believe that in such a manner it is very hard to reproduce the beautiful imagery of rural Bengal or that of far distant lands like Vidisha or Babylon that the poet created in the original poems, as his mind raced through both space and time in all its lonesomeness. Instead I have rewritten the same poems in my own way in English, trying to stay as close to the themes and imageries of the original poems as possible.

Please give them a read, irrespective of whether you are aware of the original Bengali poems or not. These five poems build on one another, so it’s probably a good idea to read all of them at one go, may be following the sequence in which they appear here.

 

 

Banalata Sen from Natore

 

A thousand years I’ve trodden paths on the face of the earth,

The seas of Ceylon and Malay I’ve voyaged through misery and mirth.

From Bimbisar and Ashoka’s fading city

Through endless streets of ancient darkness

Among even further away Vidarbha’s men,

Countless sojourns have made me listless

Until I found a moment of tranquility

In the soulful eyes of Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

Darkness of her hair reminded me of nights forlorn

In the city of Vidisha of long lost times. Sculptures that adorn

The temples of Shravasti inspired her countenance.

After a long lost voyage the way a sailor

Eyes a verdurous isle amidst the azure ocean,

Ohh I did see her with the same ardor

“Where wert thou all these days?”, asked she softly with a glance,

Tranquil as a bird’s nest, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

End of the day like the dewdrop’s sound descends the eve’s veil,

Smell of the sun on the kite’s gorgeous wings grows pale.

As the last hues on earth fade into blackness eternal,

And sounds of sentience drown into slumber deep,

All birds return to the nest, all beasts to the den,

So do all brooks, all streams. All blossoms do sleep.

All that’s left behind is darkness abysmal

And reposed in front, pining for love, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

A Windy Night

 

Last night was a windy night,

And a night of a thousand stars.

Scattered winds played with my mosquito net all night,

Swelling its bosom like the heart of a boisterous sea,

Making it long to escape the bed and fly into the stars.

Indeed, at times, half-asleep,

I felt like the mosquito net escaped from over my head

And set itself afloat in the turbulence of the winds, amidst all the azure-ness,

Like a white dove.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

All the dead stars were resurrected last night.

I sighted the fading countenance of my favorite dead amidst them.

They were effulgent like the eyes of a lover kite on a dark tree top,

Eyes moistened by dew drops,

Resplendent like the leopard skin, the queen of far distant Babylon

Used to drape about her bosom.

Such was the splendor of last night.

 

All the beauties, I witnessed whom dying in Assyria, Egypt and Vidisha,

were resurrected last night.

I sighted them thronging the foggy horizon,

Holding tridents in their hands, determined

To trample death under their feet,

To celebrate the triumph of life,

To erect the menacing tower of love.

Terrified was I, last night’s turmoil tore me from within.

Within the tirelessly flapping wings of the azure sky

Faded time- like a tiny earthly insect.

Such was the tremor of last night.

 

Wind raced in through my windows last night,

Fierce as a herd of zebras running frantically

Through the lush green meadows,

Terror-stricken by the menacing roar of the lion.

My heart reverberated in joy

Intoxicated by the smell of the wilderness,

By the excitement of the darkness that roared within me,

Like a lustful tigress, ecstatic in her union with her lover.

I felt like my heart escaped this earth,

And set itself afloat like an inebriated balloon in the turbulence of the winds,

And sailed through the distant stars amidst all the azure-ness

Like a swift vulture.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

 

A couple of decades later

 

A couple of decades later what if our paths again cross

Far beyond this city that gathers our generation’s moss;

Back in the pleasant countryside where our roots are entrenched deep,

In autumn by a granary with harvest the peasants did reap.

 

When kites, golden in the setting sun, journey homeward bound

And the pall of eve descends on meadows like the dewdrop’s sound,

When the moon moves soft behind the forest boughs in her regal grace

With leaves pitch black and branches specter thin silhouetted against her milky face,

 

When the lonesome owl, hiding from a tree top, at the village path does stare,

And strands of hay, from the ducks’ nests, from the crows’ nests, waft in the air,

When indolence prevails over the paddy fields stretched wide,

In this meadowy path I’ve found you again by my side.

 

After twenty years moving about the city swept by life’s tide,

In this pastoral land I’ve found you again by my side.

 

 

Naked, lonely hand

 

Once more darkness intensifies in the spring sky.

Darkness,

The mysterious sister of light.

Like a lady who always loved me dearly,

But whose countenance I’ve never seen.

 

The shape of a fading palace in a long lost city looms in my mind.

By the side of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea,

There was once a city, a palace,

Where there were

Persian carpets,

Kashmir shawls,

Cockatoos and pigeons,

Shadowy boon of the mahoganies,

Orange sun,

And you, my lady,

You.

I haven’t searched for the beauty of your countenance

For centuries,

For centuries.

 

The spring sky brings back those memories, those stories,

From far distant lands, from long lost cities.

Fading manuscripts made out of leopard skin,

Window panes of rainbow colors,

Orange sun playing on

Persian carpets,

Curtains with colors of the peacocks’ feathers,

Glass full of wine,

Crimson red,

Your naked, lonely hand.

 

Your naked lonely hand.

 

 

Walking Along

 

I’ve taken solitary walks along endless streets of the city,

For years and years,

With a vague remembrance of some fading message.

 

Trams and buses move about the city, punctually, all through the day,

And then desert its streets to fade into their own world-

Their own world of sleep.

I’ve seen them sleeping in sheds and depots all night.

I’ve seen gaslights lighting the streets of the city tirelessly through the night,

Aware of its duties.

Bricks, doors, windows, signboards,

Drowned in slumber

Under the night sky.

I’ve absorbed their peace, their bliss, through my lonesome walks.

 

It’s late in the night,

Stars whisper around the peak of the Monument.

Have I ever witnessed something more seamlessly beautiful than this-

A starry lonesome Calcutta?

Eyes descend upon the grass,

Dew drops on the blades,

Strands of hay waft in the air.

 

Why did I take lonely walks along endless streets of Babylon

Through the darkness of the nights?

I still don’t know, even after a thousand years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calcutta Corner

Kolkata Literary Meet 2018

Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) is one of the more recent additions to the wide repertoire of cultural events that the city of Calcutta can boast of. Though now there are more than fifty literary festivals in different parts of the country in a single calendar year, Kolkata Literary Meet still retains its uniqueness, thanks to the star studded list of speakers it has every year, the aura of the Victoria Memorial which hosts the fest and the rich literary heritage of the city which probably hasn’t faded over the years. The poet Jeet Thayil jokingly mentioned during one of the talk sessions of the fest that this year’s KLM kicked off smoothly with a poetry session- an idea that would invite some retaliation in some other parts of the country.

The first KLM I attended was in January, 2016, when I was in the city for a month’s break from graduate school in US. My mind was in quite a turbulent state that time owing to some emotionally draining events that happened around me then, and I was desperately looking for new ideas and philosophies. I attended several one hour talk sessions of KLM 2016 and each of them provided me with food for thought for the next several months. I ended up buying the books, written by the speakers in all those sessions, in the Kolkata Book Fair that followed the literary meet, took them back to US with me, read them with great passion for months and had long and intense conversations about the ideas in those books with my friends in grad school.

I wasn’t in Calcutta during KLM 2017, but this year (2018) I made it a point to be in the city during KLM. After attending Durga Puja first time in seven years, I feel like my bond with the city has been re-established and hence no way would I have missed KLM 2018. Here are my thoughts on the sessions I attended and found intriguing and some pictures I took at the sessions (This shouldn’t be treated as a comprehensive summary or review of KLM 2018, I attended only a few sessions and my thoughts here are more on how the ideas conveyed in those sessions  are connected to the central theme of my blog than on the ideas themselves):

Sesher Kobita Ekhono Keno Prashangik- Soumitro Chatterjee 

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It was surreal for most people in the audience including myself to not only see the iconic Bengali actor on stage, a few yards in front of them, but also have the opportunity to ask him questions. Even if this session had no topic whatsoever and the speaker simply talked of how he had spent his day, I would have been glued to my seat hearing the person, who played the roles of Apu, Feluda, Amal (Charulata), etc. on screen to perfection and formed a large part of my childhood, talk. The session however had a specific topic- the relevance of Sesher Kobita ,an iconic Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore, in today’s times, and closed with Soumitro Chatterji reciting the last part of the novel, which is essentially a couple of poems where the two lovers bid each other goodbye, probably symbolic of the state of mind Tagore himself was in when he wrote the novel in the twilight of his career. The octogenarian actor elegantly reciting those poems with the darkness of the night slowly descending upon the magnificent Victoria Memorial in the background provided a mesmerizing moment that the people in the audience would probably remember for years to come.

Abastob, Agyato, Aparichito (Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar) – Md. Zafar Iqbal, Sirshendu Mukherjee and Binod Ghoshal 

The topic of the session was “Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar” in literature and the speaker panel most aptly included the iconic Bengali writer Sirshendu Mukherjee, whose novels for children were one of the best parts of my childhood and featured a lot of ghosts in a humorous way, and Bangaldeshi author and researcher in physics and computer science, Md. Zafar Iqbal. It wasn’t unexpected that a session on the relevance of ghosts and mystic elements in Bengali adult fiction would end up dwelling upon the possibility of existence of an abstract world or metaphysical realm beyond the physical world, which has been the major theme of my blog.

The most educated and well thought argument I have encountered so far in favor of the existence of the metaphysical realm is that there is a always subjective element to our consciousness. No two individuals experience reality the same way. Hence one should always be flexible about their conception of reality, leaving enough room for events that are labeled supernatural now but can be considered “real” in future. Author Sirshendu Mukherjee seemed to adhere to this view when he said that he neither really believed or disbelieved in ghosts. At least that was my take home message from what he said.

The most educated and well thought out counter argument to the above argument I have heard is that there is no empirical evidence to conclusively support the existence of the metaphysical realm. It is quite possible that the neurons in our brain fire in particular sequences to give us that “illusion”. Author Md. Iqbal probably seemed to adhere to that view when he said that in his opinion ghosts don’t exist but ghost stories do and being a physicist by training, he didn’t give too much importance to meta-physics.

Benche Thakar Lekha – Anupam Roy 

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The focus of the session with Anupam Roy, one of the most popular singer- song writers of Bengal in the current times, was on the poems, novels and song lyrics that he wrote so far as opposed to his music which had given him more fame and money. Anupam seemed to be particularly proud of his maiden novel “Somoyer Baire”, from which he read an excerpt that dwelt upon three smart young guys- an aspiring mathematician, an aspiring entrepreneur and a guy without aspirations, who followed different trajectories in their careers and lives, that crisscrossed a few times when they were munching peanuts sitting below the Shahid Minar in Maidan and reflecting upon their lives. It sounded extremely familiar and interesting to me. “Somoyer Baire” probably got into my “To Buy” list for the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair.

Performance of “Meghnad Badh Kabya” by Gautam Haldar and Naye Natua

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It will probably take me another few years of serious study of classical poetry, shadhu bhasha and theatrics to make a single comment about this epic poem and the performance. For now I just feel blessed that I witnessed this performance.

 

Philosophy · Science

There’s more to it than meets the eye

For a long time, it wasn’t clear to me why a stick inside water appears bent- a phenomenon we all witness in our day to day lives and about which we have read in high school Physics textbooks.

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A high school Physics textbook uses a schematic as below (Figure 1) and offers the following explanation: Light (ambient) reflected by the stick get bent when it traverses from water to air due to refraction. Our eyes can’t follow the bent path of rays, backtrace those rays as shown in the schematic (dotted lines) and hence we see the stick at a different position from where it really is.

schematic_1Figure 1- Schematic used in high school physics textbooks to explain why a stick inside water appears bent. Light from point A on the stick bends at the surface of water, our eye can’t follow the bent path and so we see image of A at A’. Using the picture of an eye and back-tracing the light rays to a point basically involve one layer of abstraction, which we don’t use in the subsequent ray diagrams.

In high school, I took this explanation for granted, reproduced it on answer scripts of examinations and even solved numerical problems related to it. But I never really understood this phenomenon until I got into graduate school, where my lack of understanding of this phenomenon eventually made me conclude that I do not understand how science works in general. Then after a phase of “soul searching” and of course reading up on several things, a much more satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon dawned on me, which I shall describe here in details.

The fact that this is a blog post gives me the liberty to not only write about a field of science in which I am not an expert but also state something which may already have been published before or has been proven wrong. I simply may not be aware of it despite talking to several friends, pursuing research in the sciences, and spending a lot of time on the internet browsing on the topic. I don’t have this luxury while writing research articles in peer reviewed journals for my professional career.

Another reason to write this essay is that my explanation starts from physics, that governs all phenomena in the physical world, but eventually delves into the mental world and becomes a neuroscience problem, true to the theme of my blog. In my opinion, the neuroscience aspect is key to understanding the phenomenon, but has largely been ignored in high school textbooks, which led to a gap in my mind between what I read in science textbooks and what I witnessed in the real world.

So let’s first get back to the explanation provided in high school physics text books. Light from the stick travels in a straight line inside water, but when it crosses the water surface it bends since air has a refractive index different from water. Then light again travels in straight line in air to reach our eye. The fact that light travels in straight line in a medium and that it bends at the intersection of two media are consistent with the laws of physics. But these facts alone don’t solve the puzzle. The last part of the explanation is that our eyes cannot follow the bent path and backtrace the incoming rays in a straight line path to form an image of the stick at some other position. But there are no details on why this is so in high school textbooks.  Similar issue arises with explanation of how magnifying glass works, why we see our reflection on the mirror or occurrence of mirages- basically any case where a “virtual image” is formed.

First let’s take the case of a magnifying glass and analyze it in more details. In order to solve the last part of the puzzle, we have considered the eye as a combination of a convex lens in front and a screen (retina) behind it in the ray diagram below (Figure 2). High school textbooks instead show the picture of an eye and backtrace the rays, which is basically a layer of abstraction which was the root cause of my confusion.

RayDiagram1_1

Figure 2- To our retina, there is no difference between an object at position x with lens at position z, and a larger object at position y with no lens. But our brain always thinks that it is the second case and that is what we “see”.

Actually, if an object AB is placed within the focal length of the convex lens (magnifying glass)  rays from object AB go through the lens, diverge and then hit the lens of our eye only to converge again at the retina. There is absolutely no difference in the spatial intensity pattern formed on the retina between the case in figure 2 (object AB at position x and lens at position z leading to formation of virtual image ab at position y) and a simpler case of a larger object ab at position y with no lens at position z. However, our brain only considers the second case and hence we “see” a magnified object at position y. No matter how much we train our brain through physics textbooks, we can never instead “see” a much smaller object at position x even though we know that is the case physically. Thus there is a subtle difference between the intensity pattern/ image formed at the retina of the eye and what we “see”. This subtle difference is probably created by some extremely complicated signal processing in the brain. Instead of looking at the magnifying glass with our eye if we took a snapshot with our camera then also we will end up “see”-ing the same thing. This is because the lens of the camera acts like the lens of our eye leading to the same intensity pattern on the film/CMOS sensor as the retina. Then we interpret that intensity pattern with our brains the same way we do in the case of looking at the magnifying glass with our eyes.

Next let’s discuss why we see the reflection of an object on the mirror the way we see it. In Figure 3 below, we consider two cases: Case I (an object AB at position x and a mirror at position z) and Case II (an object AB at position x, another identical object CD at position y and no mirror)

RayDiagram2_1

Figure 3- To our retina, there is no difference between case I and case II, but our brain thinks that it can be only be case II. It is to be noted that A’B’ and C’D’/ a’b’ are formed on the same region of the screen. They have just been drawn slightly away from each other for the sake of clarity here. 

Again, in either case, the intensity distribution on the retina is the same- a focussed image of object AB and a slightly defocussed image of object CD, or ab (light rays from object AB get reflected off the mirror and converge near the retina). However just like in the example of magnifying glass, our brain only considers case II and hence we “see” an object at position x and another identical object at position y. No matter how much we try we cannot “see” an object at x and a mirror at z which is reflecting off the light from the object at x.

At this point, I guess it is obvious what happens in the case of a stick immersed in water. Rays of light (ambient) reflected by the stick cross the surface, bend, hit our eyes and converge to form an image on our retina which is identical to an image of a bent stick in the air. Just like the previous cases, we end up “see”-ing a bent stick in air (yes we still see the water in all practical cases but that is for other reasons like presence of the vessel, water droplets, water reflecting off ambient light etc.) as opposed to a straight stick in water with light bending off as it comes towards our eyes.

The subtle point I am trying to make here through all the examples above is that light can travel through a bent path on its way from the object to our eyes if it passes from one medium to another with different refractive index. The image formed on our retina will be identical to an object being displaced from its actual position and light traveling from it to our eyes through vacuum/ air following a straight line path. However our brain can only conceive of light traveling straight through vacuum/ air and hence we “see” the object at a position different from where it actually is. This particular behavior of the brain may arise out of evolution because we and our ancestors have grown up in a planet with air of a nearly constant refractive index and our visual perception is hence calibrated to that. Essentially, the laptop/ computer on which the reader is reading this article, the table on which it is placed, the window in your room, etc. are present where they “see” it to be present simply because light is traveling through a medium of fixed refractive index on its way from the object to their eyes. If the refractive index of the medium changed along the trajectory of light, they will see the objects at different spots from where they actually are. If we could do an experiment where we could have brought aliens from a planet where the refractive index of the medium varies much more as a function of height from the surface of the planet than it does in the case of our earth and ask them where they locate different objects on earth, then my hypothesis could have been tested. My guess would be that they would locate all objects on earth wrongly because their brains are calibrated to how light travels in their planet, which is not usually in a straight line unlike our planet.

At this point, the really imaginative readers may be wondering if what we see around us indeed exist or not. Probably they have asked this question to themselves before. My humble opinion in this regard is that there is no absolute reality, or at least we can’t perceive it. We can only be more convinced of the existence of something we see through other senses like smell, touch, etc. but can never be convinced of the absolute existence of something. A subjective aspect of consciousness always accompanies our perception of reality, which is essentially a calibration of the current signal we are receiving from the external physical world to some previously received signal, which we may have received in our own lifetime or inherited from our predecessors through evolution, as in the case of all the optical phenomena discussed in this essay.

 

 

Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

“Hey, are you gonna be here longer? Then I won’t lock the door now.”

Jack asked Ary as he was about to leave the laboratory for the day. Ary didn’t know why he asked the same question to Ary every evening. Though he certainly wasn’t the first person to get into the lab everyday, he almost always was the last person to leave. He worked till late hours of the night while most others would hang out with their friends and families, attend parties or simply go to bed early to have an early start for the next day.

Ary’s eyes were on the computer screen, as the tip of the microscope scanned the surface of the last thin film he grew.

“Hey Ary, will you lock the door?”, Jack asked again not getting an answer from Ary.

Of course I would. I am a poor Indian grad student living in a foreign land. I have no life. I have no girlfriend- Ary told himself.

But then to his own surprise, he said, “No, I think I am done for the day. I shall leave with you. Lock the door”.

Ary packed his backpack, left the computer to direct by itself  the motion of the tip of the microscope over his dearest thin film sample, and got out of the lab, located in the basement of Hearst Memorial Hall, the oldest building on the University of California Berkeley campus. Outside it was dark already. It was the end of November. Days had already become very short in this part of the globe.

Ary hated this part of the year the most. It had been more than two years since he had moved to California from Calcutta for his PhD. He would go home every winter during the Christmas break and come back quite refreshed to resume research. So during this time of the year, with days too short and nights too long for a guy from lower latitudes like Ary and Christmas still a month away, he would feel exhausted and depressed after swimming with the sharks in a highly aggressive and competitive research environment of one of the top graduate schools in US for an entire year, and longed for the peace and warmth of his sweet home in Calcutta.

Ary paced across the campus briskly in the dark and reached the University Avenue, which started from the west end of the campus, pierced through the heart of the city of Berkeley which was rather somewhat between a college town and a full blown city and ended at the Berkeley Marina, which overlooked the bay that connected with the Pacific Ocean. Ary wondered where to go for dinner. He didn’t want to cook the same marinara pasta at home again. He called up Diggy, a fellow grad student from India and one of his closest friends in Berkeley, to check his availability for dinner. Diggy, as expected, didn’t pick up the phone. Ary followed the University Avenue to the downtown area, passed the dingy McDonalds restaurant frequented by homeless people and walked into Bobby G’s Pizzeria- a sports bar with some good pizza.

Ary sat at the bar and waited for his pizza. The “football” game on TV didn’t register in his head at all. He never really understood the rules nor he knew any of the teams or the players. He kept thinking about the results of his experiments or lack thereof, his withering interest in the topic of his research and the apparent lack of direction in his research work- an activity which occupied most of his time for the last two years.

Just when his pepperoni pizza arrived, another fellow grad student, Steve Lambson, hopped in and sat next to him. Ary had talked to Steve a few times in the graduate social hour, but he didn’t really know much about him other than that his name was Steve Lambson, he was a second year PhD student in Civil Engineering and he was from Minnesota.

“You eat meat?”, asked Steve, “I thought Indians don’t”.

Ohh, another conversation aimed at dispelling misconceptions about Indians’ food habits, which won’t serve its purpose! – Ary told himself.

Ary didn’t feel like talking. For a while he had observed a pattern about himself. His inclination to interact with people outside the Indian graduate student community used to be very high when he wasn’t occupied with research. But after he spent a few days immersed in research, he only wanted to talk to his fellow Indian grad students. The current conversation with Steve would possibly continue along the lines of Indian culture, which Ary was tired talking about after spending two years in Berkeley. The conversation could also take an alternate trajectory where Ary would talk about his own research and Steve would talk about his, with neither person understanding anything about the other person’s research. Neither trajectory appeared promising to Ary, but he was too polite in this foreign land to not continue the conversation.

Though the conversation took the well-trodden second trajectory, Ary was pleasantly surprised to identify that he was actually able to follow Steve’s research. In fact, he started liking it. To make it more intriguing, Steve also mentioned that there was an opening for a new PhD student in his project. Steve was deploying wireless sensors in the Sierra Nevada basin to detect the occurrence of landslides. Though the technical aspect of the project sounded interesting, what really captured Ary’s imagination was the location of the project- instead of spending all his time working on thin films in a basement of a Berkeley building he would do laboratory work out there in nature, amidst the majestic Sierras. Ary had driven to Yosemite Valley that summer with some fellow Indian grad students and was mesmerized by the Sierras. Though he had visited several hill stations in the Himalayas with his parents back in childhood, he felt that the beauty of the Sierras wasn’t comparable to any other mountain he had seen before. He wasn’t sure why he felt so. He meticulously photographed the looming granite structures, the serene lakes, the tall redwoods and the beautiful chapels with his newly bought DSLR and wanted to go there again soon to pursue his passion in photography further. Now he was probably provided with the perfect opportunity to combine his work and his passion.

For a long time he knew that he loved Physics. That’s why he was working all day in a laboratory trying to find a phase boundary in a ferroelectric thin film, which nobody had observed before. But of late he loved photography and nature and nature photography so much more. This was his chance to stop being an Indian nerd and become cool like an American. Ary walked home that night, confused but excited. However when he jumped into the twin sized bed of his small studio apartment in downtown Berkeley, for which he paid a rent half his monthly stipend, he was too tired from the day’s work and inebriated from the beer at Bobby G’s to think further and slept immediately…

Professional Wrestling · Short stories

The big red monster

The whole arena turned red, a creepy music hit, a big monster showed up wearing a mask, he waved his hand and there was fire all about the ring, the twenty thousand people in the audience screamed in excitement and awe…..

“Kane! Kane! It’s his brother Kane!”, Ary kept screaming, lying on his bed and throwing punches in the air. His mom hastily walked into his bedroom and pushed him out of bed, “Get up! It’s past 8 AM, get ready for school, how much more are you gonna sleep, and stop watching that stuff”, his mother said, and rushed back again to the kitchen. She had to stir the fish curry one last time while all the water would evaporate leaving behind the fish, the potatoes and the spices delightfully blended together. Ary’s dad, who was packing his briefcase in the living room, would eat the fish curry with rice before going to office. “Have you seen your own physique, Ary? How can a guy like you be interested in such hooligan stuff!”, his dad yelled at Ary, as Ary got out of his bedroom and walked towards the sink in front of the bathroom. Unrest and tension were always at its peak during this time of the day in their moderately sized third floor apartment in the southern suburbs of Calcutta, with an impatient and worldly adult running around the house looking frantically for the shaving brush, the comb, the handkerchief and the green tube of “Borolin” cream on his way to office, and a lazy and unworldly kid being rushed by his mom at every step on his way to school.

As Ary stood at the sink holding the toothbrush motionless inside his mouth and staring at the mirror in his front, he tried to remember the face he saw in his dream last night that made him scream- a big masked face, long hair, similar to the monster who broke into the steel cage and “tombstoned” the Undertaker last night on TV. Just that the color of the mask wasn’t red in the dream. It was rather kind of dark grey. He never dreamt in colors, he had noticed. The world of his dreams was like the world of his big fat pet cat Obelix even when she was awake- black and white. Cats don’t have cones in their eyes, his school teacher had mentioned a few days back. He had been looking at Obelix with more amazement since he picked up that information. “Mom, mom, she’s seeing everything in black and white!”, he would scream every time Obelix showed up in the living room and greeted everyone with her customary “meaow”.

“Again you are simply standing out there holding the toothbrush! Why can’t you just do things in time.”

Ary never understood what “doing things” exactly meant. He was good at studies but that was simply because he loved spending time with books and learning new things and hardly forgot what he learned. But all these other things- brushing teeth, taking shower, eating food- he hardly ever found any purpose in them. Every now and then he would get lost in his own world, or rather one of the multiple worlds he had created inside his head over the years.  The world of professional wrestling was one of the recent ones. His father had just subscribed for cable television in their house, one of the first ones to do so in their middle-class neighborhood, much against the wish of his mom who thought it would adversely affect Ary’s studies. Ever since then, Ary had gotten addicted to watching World Wrestling Federation (WWF) shows once back from school. Yesterday was a Sunday and fighting against fierce opposition from his dad he managed to watch the match between Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker inside a fifteen feet high steel cage.

Ary walked into the bathroom and locked the door from inside for a shower. Finally his imagination could flow seamlessly, unobstructed by instructions from rest of the world. Ary imagined a square ring with tight ropes surrounded by a raucous American crowd about whom he knew very little barring their love for wrestling. Shawn Michaels entered the arena to a massive cheer and there he was next to Shawn Michaels as his best friend. He didn’t call himself Triple H. He called himself Penta X. He wasn’t really very sure how Penta X looked. He knew that Penta X wasn’t a giant like Undertaker or Kane. He was of medium height and slim and extremely agile, kinda like Shawn Michaels, but his face resembled Ary’s. He came out to a song that sounded like “Run miles, run miles….”.Together Shawn and he were ready to take on anyone- a dead man from Death Valley, California, a deranged maniac from some random broiler room, a giant sumo wrestler from Japan- just name it!! But who was that big red monster? What was there behind that scary mask? Could he actually walk through fire? Would they be able to take him down?

Just as Penta X was about to take on the red monster, mom screamed, “Ary!! You are in the bathroom for the last ten minutes and I haven’t heard a single splash!! What are you doing out there? It’s 9:30 AM. Everyday, it’s the same story”, a combination of anger and helplessness in the tone. Ary stopped the match before the bell rang, decided to resume it once back from school and grabbed the mug to fill it up with water from the bucket and begin the “shower”…….

Calcutta Corner

Durga Puja, 2017

I don’t think any festival is celebrated in any part of the world the way Durga Puja is celebrated in Bengal, particularly Calcutta. The celebration of the arrival of Goddess Durga from her abode in Mount Kailash to our homes in Bengal is not merely restricted to a certain religion or group in the city. Though chanting of  stotras in reverence of the goddess, fasting and worship of the goddess’s idol form an integral aspect of the puja, they are far from being the only aspects of it. Rather Durga Puja encompasses all aspects of culture- art, literature, music, movies, etc. with preparations for pandal decorations beginning in the city almost a year ahead of the puja, craftsmen coming from remote parts of Bengal to the capital to display their trade and earn a living, literature being published at its finest in esteemed Bengali magazines like Desh and Anandamela a few months prior to the puja, new “commercial” and “art” movies being released at the theaters a few weeks before the puja and the city dressing up with meticulously crafted pandals, housing both traditional and modern sculptures of the divine, at almost every corner for the four days of the actual festival.

Though Durga Puja in Calcutta had been an integral part of my childhood and college days I haven’t been in the city or the country during the puja for the last seven years, so Durga Puja 2017 was really special to me. Here are a few photographs and short reviews of some pandals I visited, some new novels and stories I read in Desh and Anandamela and some new Bengali movies I watched at the theaters during this year’s puja.

Pandals/ Street Art: 

There is street art at almost every corner of the city during the four days of the puja, in the form of puja pandals. I visited some pandals both in North and South Calcutta this time, the decorations and Durga idols of which ranged from traditional to modern (“theme pujas”). Here are some photographs I took of the pandals I liked the most with brief descriptions of each.

Best idol:

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The iconic Durga idol of Bagbazaar Sarbojonin on the left- every year it’s a newly made idol but it is exactly the same as last year’s. Some things in life don’t change!!
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Durga idol of Chetla Agrani club sculpted in mahogany wood
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Mesmerizing idol of the divine in all her tranquility at Shibmandir Sarbojonin

Best exterior decoration: 

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Thailand’s White Temple, mimicked at Deshpriya Park, dazzling in white light.
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Colorfully decked bird’s nest at Jodhpur Park.

Best interior decorations:

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A musical performance at Kasi Bose Lane
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Nalini Sarkar Street (Real houses on both sides of a typical narrow lane of North Calcutta become a part of the puja pandal)
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Colorful interiors at Selimpur Pally
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A regal atmosphere at Mudiali Club. The background music beautifully added to the interior decorations.

Best lighting: 

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Ekdalia Evergreen’s street lighting as gorgeous as ever.

Literature:

I read this year’s Pujabarshiki (Puja edition) Anandamela (most popular magazine for new Bengali teenage fiction) almost in its entirety and also some of the novels from this year’s Sarodiya (Puja edition) Desh (most popular magazine for new Bengali fiction) and Anandabazaar Patrika . These are the novels/ short stories I really liked.

Nihsabda Mrityu (Silent Death) by Sukanta Gangyopadhyay (teenage detective novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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A very popular opinion currently in Calcutta is that Bengali literature, particularly children/ teen’s literature, is in decay. It is not hard to buy the prevalent opinion given the demise of Satyajit Ray (creator of Feluda) and Sunil Ganguly (creator of Kakababu) and aging of Sirshendu Ganguly (creator of the “Odbhuture”  series) and Samaresh Majumdar (creator of Arjun). However one detective/ adventure series that stands out in today’s teenage literature is Sukanta Ganguly’s “Dipkaku” series. It probably started about a decade back in Pujabarshiki Anandamela and I had always liked it. This year’s Dipkaku novel was no exception. The plot was quite intriguing, innovative and unpredictable. I know my opinion would raise many eyebrows but I would still go on to state that Dipkaku is the best sleuth that Bengali fiction has produced after Byomkesh and Feluda. Kakababu and Arjun, despite their popularity, were never really detectives. Their stories were mostly adventures with very few elements of puzzle solving characteristic of a typical detective story. Things just happened in those stories- the villain revealed himself to Kakababu and Arjun at some point, they didn’t really follow clues to reach the villain.  On the other hand, Sukanta Ganguly’s Dipkaku series is a textbook example of detective fiction, with the detective Dipkaku following each and every clue at the crime scene to get to the villain. It is probably time to lift Dipkaku from the not so read pages of Anandamela to the silver screen for next year’s Puja season.

 Tuatara by Debashish Bandyopadhyay (teenage adventure novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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My first impression of this novel is that it is extremely dense. That’s probably a good thing particularly because the setting of the novel is also a very dense forest in the Garo Hills of north-east India. Not only is this short novel full of facts about the geography and folklore of Garo hills which were unknown to me before but also it is jam packed with action. I often turned back the pages to keep track of all that was going on.

Passages to the abstract world, of which I talked about in the introduction post of my blog, are present here in abundance disguised as tales in Garo folk lore. However keeping in mind the young audience or probably out of his own lack of interest about the abstract realm, the author did not let the readers indulge themselves in those mind altering trajectories. The monologue and actions of the main villain deep inside the cave towards the ending of the novel were still too violent and trippy for the teenage readers but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One issue I had with the novel was that the story of the bad guy killing his twin brother and taking his place had been repeated too many times in Bengali teenage fiction, making the plot quite predictable. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda short story “Kailash Chowdhurir Pathar” had that plot and so did a Suchitra Bhattacharya’s Mitin Mashi novel, published a few  years ago in Anandamela (forgot its name, the setting of the novel was the Sundarbans).

Loukik (Real) by Samaresh Majumdar (short story)- published in Sharodiya Desh

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With Samaresh Majumdar being a veteran Bengali writer who mostly wrote about relationships and political activism in his novels, I did not anticipate this short story to be surreal at all when I started reading it. But to my surprise, it turned out to be an extremely well written surreal story of cops visiting a woman’s apartment and never getting out. The passage to the abstract world is present in full form in this short story that lasts only a few pages. Hats off to the writer and Bengali literary culture in general for this hidden gem!

Tarabhora Akasher Niche (Under a starry sky) by Srijato (novel)- published in Sharodiya Anandabazaar Patrika

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This novel by the famous contemporary Bengali poet Srijato tells the stories of Vincent VanGogh and a schizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta in parallel. The scrizophrenia patient was introduced to Vincent VanGogh and the famous “Starry Night” painting during his childhood. Since then he pursued painting actively and dreamt of becoming a famous painter one day, but had to give up on his dream owing to a lot of unfortunate and heart breaking events- death of his teacher and mentor from childhood who had actually introduced him to “Starry Night”, an act of plagiarism committed by his best friend and colleague, and of course discouragement from his middle-class family due to the uncertain future associated with pursuing a career in art. The suppressed desire of becoming a painter, coupled with the death of his dearest brother due to a misunderstanding between them, started making him hallucinate. The novel reached its climax when his wife, in order to solidify the distinction between reality and imagination in his mind, brought him to the Museum of Modern Art at New York so that he could see the actual “Starry Night” painting with his own eyes.

This novel probably epitomizes the journey of the human mind through a constant battle between solipsism and empiricism, which is the central theme of my blog. The novel has all the elements necessary to take the readers on that journey- post-impressionist art, a “crazy” painter, the experience of solitude, the nuances of brotherly love and sexual love, mental disorders and of course death. In my opinion, this is a landmark novel in modern Bengali literature and no Bengali reader should miss it. Also it certainly deserves a read by people who don’t know Bengali. I am hoping for an English translation of the book to come out soon.

Sparsha (Touch) by Krishendu Mukhopadhyay (novel)- published in Sharodiya Desh

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This novel by Krishnendu Mukhopadhyay is similar in style to Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. It also narrates two stories in parallel- one story set in the historical past and the other set in modern Calcutta. However the stories are very different in flavor from that in Srijato’s novel, but they are still equally serious and intriguing.

The first story here is of a Bengali pilot fighting for the Royal Air Force during World War II who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The second story is that of a young lady in modern day Calcutta who interrogates several surviving family members of the pilot to figure out why an old Jewish lady left a huge sum of money for the pilot at the time of her death. The novel is brilliantly written. It is extremely informative and has several touching moments that poignantly bring out the horror of the largest war fought in the history of mankind and the atrocities committed in the Jewish concentration camps.

In my opinion, these two novels perfectly bring out the contrast between two subjects I always found really fascinating- philosophy and history. Philosophy, particularly philosophy of the mind, analyzes events in the mental world of one individual much more than events in the physical world. Since it’s much harder for multiple individuals to agree upon details of events in their own mental world-s than agreeing upon events in the same physical world they all share, philosophy ends up having way more interpretations than facts. Also extraordinary events in the physical world like world wars don’t feature much in philosophy.

Srijato’s novel, which is of extremely philosophical nature and largely dwells on issues connected to the mental world of two individuals- Van Gogh and the scrizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta- whether the world we live in is real or is an illusion, what is the nature of absolute reality, what is the purpose of existence- talks of very few relatively ordinary events in the lives of some people and yet scrutinizes those events with great precision in order to obtain deep insights regarding the mental world .

On the other hand, history is largely a study of events that happened in this physical world- mostly extraordinary ones which impacted the lives of multitudes of individuals, and hence deals largely with facts. It’s true that history also involves the act of interpretation and hence also deals with events in the mental world that ultimately trigger extraordinary events in the physical world. But still, history, as far as I understand, has way more facts than philosophy and the interpretations used in history are more simplistic than that in philosophy, at least at the level of an individual or relationships among a few individuals. For example, history books don’t deal much with how consciousness flows within an individual, how their thoughts move across in time, etc. and argue about the purpose of existence unlike philosophy books.  Instead the history books kind of assume that people living together in peaceful times are happy and only deal with extraordinary events like wars, famines, tyranny etc. that adversely affect the lives of those people and perturb their happiness.

This novel “Sparsha” also implicitly makes some simplistic interpretations about the meaning of life, on which philosophers have argued for ages. For example, it assumes that the purpose of life is to be happy and make your near and dear ones happy. Hence the Jewish family which was living together in a picturesque European village was indeed a perfectly happy family. Under that assumption the novel is all about how an extraordinary event like the Nazi attack of their village during World War II made their lives more complicated and miserable. On the other hand, in the other novel, Van Gogh, who also lived in Europe in peaceful times surrounded by mostly ordinary events, and the scrizophrenia patient who lived in a peaceful modern day Calcutta, both went through several periods of depression and existential crisis, and eventually killed themselves pondering over issues related to an abstract world that existed in their minds.

I myself have spent a lot of time over the last few years making myriads of interpretations about existential issues and the mental world with not much happening in the physical world, quite similar in spirit to the theme of Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. After reading “Sparsha”, I have also become quite interested in learning more facts connected to extraordinary events in the history of mankind like World War II and then making some interpretations regarding how such a massive event in the physical world was caused by some events happening in the mental world of some extraordinary individuals and how it affected the mental world of the millions of individuals who suffered from it.

 

Okay now let’s stick to my promise of not making this blog too dark and grave, and get back to lighter stuff. Talking about that, the cover page of this year’s Pujabarshiki Anandamela deserves a special mention. I scratched my head for quite some time to figure out why there is an elephant in the picture given that the elephant is not the vahana of any of Durga’s family members. Wonder what staying away from Calcutta for seven years, doing a PhD and indulging too much in the trajectories to the abstract world does to your head!!!

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Movies

Kakababur Obhijaan, directed by Srijit Mukherji

Srijit Mukherji’s movies have apparently become an integral part of Bengali’s Durga Puja celebrations. Every year he makes one movie and releases it the week before Puja. This year he made his second Kakababu movie. It is based on the novel “Paharchuray Atonko”, which I read in a month long high school break between the end of final examination of fifth grade and start of classes of sixth grade. Nothing much happens in the first half of the novel- only Kakababu and Santu sitting in a dome on the top of an extremely tall mountain in the Himalayan range in freezing cold and making observations connected to the giant teeth of a mysterious animal often called the Yeti. Then suddenly in the middle of the novel Santu (or probably Kakababu) falls through a fissure and then the plot takes a sharp turn. The rest of the novel is jam-packed with action. As a kid, I loved that slow build up to that sudden twist and gave the novel several reads as a result.

The same thing is repeated in the movie much to my delight- the first half is pretty uneventful and the second half is jam-packed with action. The movie can be watched just for the sake of Aryan Bhowmik, playing the role of Santu. Equipped with amazingly good looks, martial arts skills (he is extremely comfortable in the fight scenes because he actually knows karate), dance skills (he is also a good dancer in real life but there was no scope to exhibit those skills yet in Srijit’s Kakababu series) and decent acting skills, he is certainly the next Tollywood megastar in the making.

The most memorable part of the movie for me is the theme song. The lines “Dur Digonte Prosno Hajar, Mati te pa tai porlo Rajar” have stayed with me even after I left the theater. Unless you read a lot of Kakababu in childhood you would probably not get why those lines are so special, or why is even there a mention of Raja (king) in a movie with urban middle-class protagonists.